Saturday, April 13, 2013

Summary of Kant's moral philosophy

The principal task of morality is to answer, “What ought I to do?” All moral theory gets at this question. Philosophers have spent thousands of years forming answers to this question. This is because there are perhaps infinite ways to answer it.
The question of morality arises out of a doubt of the correct action, out of a speculative presupposition that one action is superior to another action. So in order to accept anything in the field of ethics, a person must first accept that there can be correct and incorrect answers to this question, i.e. there exists right and wrong. Ultimately, ethics is only practically applicable when a person is in a position which requires them to step out of the realm of pure action and step into the realm of speculation. My immediate answer to the question, “What ought I to do?” in any situation is “Do whatever you truly want,” because I find it much more useful, and ultimately objective, to examine the world in terms of causes and effects instead of rights and wrongs. However, this answer does not suffice within the context of ethics, because it doesn't give any account or room for moral action.

So, the principal task of morality is to define circumstances upon which right and wrong can be created, and these circumstances are used to produce an answer the question, “What ought I to do?” These circumstances actually reformulate the question, “What ought I to do?” into “What is the moral action?” or, when applied to a possible action, “Is this action moral?” This possible is then plugged into the moral calculator, provided by the moral theory, and out pops an answer to the question. A theory fails to meet the principle task of morality in two cases: when an answer is somehow not provided for a certain situation or when the answer presents a contradiction to or within the theory. In order to see if Kant's conception of morality holds up to these two criteria, it will help to understand how he answers the question, “Is this action moral?”

In Kant's conception of morality, the only thing which can be good without qualification is a good will1. This implies, morally speaking, that what counts is the primary motivation behind an action, and furthermore, the outcome of any moral act is actually irrelevant2.

Morality ought not be based in feeling, because feelings are very subjective. Just because something makes a person happy does not make it moral. Different things make different people happy, and when the source of a psychopath's happiness is thrown into the morality cupcake mix, right action can be, well, untasty. Kant steers away from this relativity/subjectivity. Morality ought to be based in the understanding that it is being upheld because of a duty. For example, an action ought to be motivated for sake of duty to be honest, or to be just, or to help a person in need, not because it feels good to be honest, to be just, or to help a person in need.3 A duty is action which one is obligated to take, with no exceptions4.

Kant uses the example of making a false promise to illustrate this point. Making a false promise is not universalizable, because if everybody made false promises, the utility of language would be lost, not to mention the principle of keeping one's word. Thus when turned into a maxim, making a false promise cannot be made into universal law, and is, in Kant's conception, not moral. Making a false promise also fails to be a moral choice because it presents a contradiction in the will, which basically means that if Jim make a false promise, yet expects others to keep their promises, there is a contradiction between what he does and what his will wishes others to do. In other words, this makes Jim a hypocrite. To be a hypocrite is to make oneself an exception of duty, which is irrational and therefore immoral.

For an action to be moral, its maxim ought to be universalizable5. This is known as the “categorical imperative,” called so because it is an absolute requirement across all categories of action. This is different from a hypothetical imperative, which is a requirement only in certain circumstances6. A maxim is simply the principle of an action; a way to state the action in general terms. Universalizable means it must be at least possible for the maxim be made into a universal law that everyone can follow. There is a second version of the categorical imperative, in which Kant reformulates the first version so that it has some practical substance. It states that we must always act in such a way as to treat people as the rational and autonomous beings which they are7. To treat them as a mere “means,” is irrational, because it presents a contradiction in the will – no rational person would wish oneself to be coerced, exploited, or otherwise used in such a way which undermines the fact that they are free-willed.

Thus, if an action is motivated by duty, if it's maxim is universalizable, and if it does not present a contradiction in the will, then it is an action of good will, and therefore, according to Kant, is morally worthy.

Kant dodges the normally lethal bullet of relativism by seeing bad or immoral acts as mistakes in reasoning. He gives evil no more power than that of a misunderstanding. In doing this, he doesn't attempt to define noumenal things with phenomenal language. Many other philosophers have been shot down when attempting to do this.

Kant's conception of morality does measure up to the task of defining adequate circumstances to facilitate creation of morality. In keeping morality entirely reasonable, he does not leave anything up for imaginative interpretation. As I said, other philosophers have had their downfall in this area. Interpretation is dangerous ground for the ethicist. Plato's concept of the good, Aristotle's circular logic of the virtuous person, and Hume's sentiments are all examples of questionable topics which have led to an air of doubt surrounding their respective theories. Kant implements a strictly universal account of morality, and as a result, a moral action is always determinable. By leaving nothing to the relative interpretation of the moral agent, the philosophy of Kant's Metaphysics of Morals consistently and soundly results in an answer to the question, “What ought I to do?”
1Ch. 1 “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.”
2Ch. 1 “A good will is good not because of what if perform or effects, nor by its aptness for the attainment of some purposed end, but simply by the virtue of the volition; it is good in itself.”
3Ch. 1 “I also set aside those actions which really conform to duty, but to which men have no direct inclination.”
4Ch. 1 “Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law...I should follow this law even to the thwarting of all my inclinations.”
5Ch. 2 “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that is should be a universal law.” & Ch. 1 “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”
6Ch. 2 “Now all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed (or at least which one might possibly will). The categorical imperative would be that which represented an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end, i.e. as objectively necessary.
7Ch. 2 “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only.”

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